Caution: I am going to invite you to visit the Instagram page of Tolu Akinyemi, marvellous poet, and you will remain there for extensive periods of time, pondering, laughing and silently agreeing with his wise and terribly insightful depictions of human behaviour and life.
Poet, author and architect, Tolu Akinyemi has maintained a lifelong romance with the written word that first sparked when he discovered the Nigerian novels ‘Pacesetter Series’ as a child. A love for reading became a love for writing and fashioning his own narratives. Akinyemi’s passion was shared with the world via a Facebook group he started with friends called ‘familia-poetica’. After the success and positive feedback he received on social media he decided to pen his own book. His first novel Your Father Walks Like A Crab was published in 2013. His latest release titled I Laugh at These Skinny Girls is out now.
So you see Tolu’s Instagram page invites you into his world, at times comical, at times romantic, always honest. We talk to the creative about his earliest inspirations, his continuos inspirations and his perception of modern poetry.
When and how did you begin writing poetry?
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with books, and then writing. I remember being the kid that was always looking for story books to borrow in school. I remember the pure bliss of the first time I discovered the Nigerian ‘Pacesetter Series’ , the ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’ books by Enid Blyton. I remember often running out of books to read, and having to make do with reading The Bible like a storybook; I found the Old Testament especially fascinating; loved reading all the beautiful stories of war and adventure. There was also a huge Longman’s dictionary in our home which I never read as a reference book.
I remember running out of books written in the English language and coming upon a dozen or so Yoruba language novels in our house. My mum had gotten them cheaply from a library that was restocking. I still remember some of the books; ‘Ile ti a fi ito mo’ (The house its bricks were laid with spittle) by Olu Daramola, ‘Kuye: Itan Omọ Odi Tí Edá Ròpin’ (Kuye: the story of a deaf outcast child) by D.O. Odunjo and ‘Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole by D.O Fagunwa. (This book was later translated into English as ‘Forest of a Thousand Daemons’ by Wole Soyinka).
It was a chore at first, but I eventually caught a rhythm with the Yoruba storybooks and even developed a taste for them. I also had the help of my mum and grandma ready to assist with the difficult words I couldn’t pronounce or had no idea what they meant.
In the end, it was a totally different but pleasant experience, reading such fascinating stories in my native language, especially when read out loudly. Today, I’m certain they greatly contributed to me being able to read and write in Yoruba with ease.
I remember the public secondary school I attended had a well-stocked library, but we were only allowed to borrow a book per time. This was fine for weekdays, but depressing on Fridays. It usually took me a day to read a typical novel, so being allowed to borrow just one book on a Friday meant I had nothing to read on Saturday and Sunday.
Before the end of my first year in the secondary school, I came up with a ‘brilliant’ plan for Fridays; it was to borrow a book over the counter, and smuggle out two other books, tucked into my shorts and hidden with my shirt. I always returned the books albeit, and everything was fine, until I was caught one day. I tried returning smuggled books at the counter instead of smuggling them back unto the shelves like I always did.
Every writer is first a reader, and only good readers make good writers; there is no jumping the gun.
In my third year of secondary school, I started trying my hands on short stories. I remember writing my first story that I never finished. It was about a young detective who moved back home from abroad to find his town crippled d by a menacing and elusive gang of criminals and he made it his mission to unravel the criminal gang and bring them to justice. I found the old manuscript recently and I had a good laugh reading what and how I wrote as a teenager.
I didn’t start writing poetry until 2009. I had made some friends on Facebook, and we formed a group we called ‘familia-poetica’. We wrote and posted poetry and had ourselves criticise and analyse them. It was around this time I began to take the poetry genre seriously and define what my style of poetry is today. With time I noticed my writings were having an increasing following on social media and the positive feedback was a spur to keep writing, ’till my first book Your Father Walks Like A Crab was published in 2013.
I gave the long-winded introduction to the answer because, becoming a writer is a fascinating process that starts with being a passionate reader. Every writer is first a reader, and only good readers make good writers; there is no jumping the gun.
I decided my kind of poetry must be ‘poetry for people who hate poetry’
Where do you find inspiration?
A lot of people ‘hate’ poetry, because they generally find what is considered conventional poetry difficult and cumbersome to digest or enjoy. I decided my kind of poetry must be ‘poetry for people who hate poetry’ which is poetry infused with six things; detail, simplicity, relatability, vividness, humour and wittiness.
In my experience, when a writing contains these, inspiration becomes easy, it’s almost like you are cheating. If you are observant, inspiration from these ingredient are bountiful around us. They can be found in everyday experiences; a busy morning’s traffic drama, the frustrations of a customer receiving bad customer service, a passenger’s reaction to a foul-mouthed bus driver, having to sit quietly with a straight face in a meeting a senior colleague has infused with fart, witnessing an unexpected act of kindness in public, conversations with friends and strangers, songs, movies, art, anything, everything. By focusing on these simple things, I have realised I never run out of things to write about. It is also crucial to have a very keen sense of observation and expectation with these. It’s hard to see what you are not looking out for.
Romance is a common theme throughout your work. Would you say you are a hopeless romantic and if so why?
There are two reasons romance is a reoccurring theme in my work. Firstly, Love is a universal language. Some may deny this; but in one way or the other, everyone is either looking for love or trying to keep it. If anyone calls me a ‘hopeless romantic’, I’ll embrace the label happily.
Secondly, it is my desire to start a process that completes the ‘broken African story’. There are stereotypes about what is generally considered ‘African poetry’. They are typically seen as poetry marinated with angst and anger and themed around socio-political and economic issues such as poverty, corruption, war, westernization, political instability and others. It is difficult to be considered a serious African poet in certain circles, if you do not write about these things, yet I know these issues tell an incomplete African story.
My poetry doesn’t intend to deny these challenges, but hopes to reintroduce the African story from a fresh and positive perspective.
As an African who grew up in Africa, I know in despite of her challenges, we also celebrate love, romance, family and community. We are rich in social capital and family values, and we are optimists who (almost to a fault) find humour in almost everything.
These are the things I try to make the focus of my writings.
People often say, Nigerian’s don’t read. As someone of Nigerian origin how would you weigh in on that?
It’s a generalisation, but there is a truth in it, and even for people who read, they would rather read textbooks and newspapers, not fiction or poetry. While I don’t think the reading culture is down-spiraling towards disaster (yet), I don’t think it’s improving either, not with the powerful distractions of this age of technology, where smartphones, digital entertainment, television and social media, competes aggressively for people’s spare time. The reading many people do today is done on internet blogs and social media, and it’s not just Nigerians, it’s a global phenomenon.
Who are some of your favourite writers and poets?
Wilbur Smith, Wendy Cope, Felix Dennis, Erica Jong, Warsan Shire. Charles Bukowski is also a guilty pleasure.
There are also some people who have had some influence on my writing but are neither ‘writers’ nor ‘poets’; Nigeria’s Asa, Robert Kelly and Mike Rosenberg (Passenger).
How do you think Nigerian literature has evolved post colonialism?
Beyond mere classification purposes, labels such as ‘African Writer’ or ‘African Literature’ exist because a lot of African Literature, (which Nigerian literature is a subset of) had such strongly socio-political themes that reflected the problems and challenges of the writer’s environment; Nigeria in this case. So, when you talked about ‘African writing’ or said someone is an ‘African writer’, it was often not just about their origin or their style of writing, but also what they wrote about.
There were certain staple subjects in African literature, such as, colonialism itself, war, poverty, westernisation, politics and corruption, gender and inequality, literacy and education and so on. These were important things to write about, but as said earlier, they do not tell a complete story.
In this context, I think one of the major changes to Nigerian or African literature is that more writers are ‘completing the story’ by writing about other experiences that also make us a people; things like love, romance and relationships, sex and sexuality, comedy and so on.
An explanation for this could be that third world country writers usually write about third world problems, and as their environment develops and inherits first world traits and problems, or as they experience other environments, it causes a shift in their writings, especially for the socially attuned.
Do you think there must be an academic discipline behind poetry or is well-woven emotion enough, and if so why?
I think it’s okay to have a ‘non-rigid’ academic discipline behind poetry, one that doesn’t maintain a purist approach to poetry, one that is more open to change and less critical of the avant-garde; that is, the experimental, non-conformist and unorthodox poetry.
I’m of the opinion that good writings are determined by readers not scholars. A lot of people say poetry is dead or dying, which is true, because the academic discipline behind poetry has refused to progress with the times.
Humour is a powerful tool in your work, what role would you say humour plays in your poetry?
Yes, humour and wits are very useful and powerful devices, and not just in writing, but in almost every context of our lives. Apart from being a tool for entertainment, humour helps us manage realities or deal with misfortunes. It helps us diffuse or deflect unpleasant situations, or find understanding and healing from bad experiences.
Like love, humour is another universal language. It’s an ingredient that keeps my writing interesting, engaging and relatable, every time I’m able to use it appropriately.
Can you share a bit about the work process behind your most recent book I Laugh at These Skinny Girls?
My work process is quite simple and it’s the same with my previous book. I have a notebook (digital and physical) where I record scraps, random ideas, sketches and suggestions for a poem. I later visit the ideas, add flesh to them, and group them into collections that eventually turn into a book.
I believe everyone judges books by their covers and their titles, and I often spend a lot of time deciding on these two. It took me about a year, several designs and iterations to finalise on the cover for I Laugh at These Skinny Girls. I never start out with the title of a book in mind, it often comes later, but with my two titles and subsequent books, I try to achieve a title that is interesting and has a back story.
Get to know Tolu
Read what Tolu likes to do in London here.